Expired Explosives and Health of Kudankulam: Anoo Bhuyan
Guest post by ANOO BHUYAN
Anitha spits blood and wipes her lips as she talks to me. A few sentences later, a large blister on her lips begins to glisten with blood again, and she has to spit it out one more time. Hundreds of villagers at Idinthakarai have similar clusters of blisters on their lips. They say that they developed the sores as a reaction to the tear gas that was used during the clash that took place between police and protesters who were protesting the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. This event occurred on tenth September. Nearly a week later, the sores continue to remain fresh and open, and a scab does not seem to be forming for any of those who were involved in the clash.
Expired and unexploded
At around 4pm in Idinthakarai on 17 September, a villager brought an unexploded and expired container of stun grenade to the St. Lourdes church. Every day, hundreds of villagers gather at the church to register their protest against the nuclear plant being built nearby. A group of locals soon surrounded him and they began to pass the grenade around, turning it in every direction and peering at its labels. The label on the front showed, that the grenade had in fact expired in 2001. What was it doing at the site of a clash, eleven years later? They began to mumble about tear gas, and wanted to know if the expired nature of the substance was responsible for their health issues.
An independent fact finding team comprising of former Judge of the Bombay High Court, BG Kolse Patil, Kalpana Sharma and RN Joe D’Cruz came later in the week, to investigate the villagers’ complaints of abuses by police forces. Approximately thirty such grenades have been found, says a social activist who accompanied the fact-finding team. Not all of them were exploded and containers with an expiry in 2001 were also seen. This raises a double issue of concern, with regards to the danger of these explosives lying around on a public beach, as well as the health repercussions that could come from using chemicals that are past their utility period.
What the Police say
When the issue of the expired explosive was put to the police officers who were present at the incident on tenth September, the Superintendent of Police in Tirunelveli, Vijayendra Bidari said, “We only use approved and authorised explosives.”
Both stun grenades and tear gas are considered as non-lethal explosives. They are employed popularly by police forces across the world, as a crowd-control measure. When asked if there is any known physical reaction that can come from these expired items, and about the villagers with wounds, the Superintendent of Police said, “This is all exaggerated by the villagers. They should take a medical opinion from a government hospital.” On the difference between stun grenades and tear gas, he said, “Various names are used for these explosives but it is all the same. They are all authorized and standard items, manufactured by the government and tested before use.”
The grenade found at Kudankulam says on its container, “Careless handling can lead to serious injuries and even death” and also that “Grenade explodes 2 seconds after release of lever.” The name of the grenade is “Shalabh” anti-riot Grenade T-1 and is manufactured by the Tear Smoke Unit at the Border Security Force Academy in Tekanpur. Kamal Kumar, Manager of the Unit says, “The utility-life of each of these grenades is three years. After that, we only recommend that they be used for training purposes by security forces.” He also added, “Over time, the chemical substances used in these explosives change. Keeping all this in mind we recommend using it only three years from manufacturing. But there is no toxic effect if used after three years.” These devices, manufactured by the research and development cell at Tekanpur can only be bought by Indian and foreign security forces, and civilians have no access to it.
Can’t leave, can’t stay
The villager who found the shell claimed that several others were also lying around on the beach and he had picked up only this one. He later said he had buried this one in the ground but the other grenades were left on the beach. A local activist at Kudankulam has now taken the grenade and kept it at a safe place. Another activist says that tear gas and similar crowd-control measures have never been used in the Kudankulam struggle, before the issue on 10 September so there is no other way these grenades could have landed up at the beach. The locals at Kudankulam are afraid to return to the site due to police presence in the area.
Revathi Radhakrishnan, a social activist, says, “From video footage, we can see that these shells were being used by police as a weapon- they were being thrown at people’s bodies and at close range, when they should have been thrown towards the ground.” The case of Selsum is a valid example of this- he has a large gash all across his neck to the point where it looks like he is wearing a neck-brace with the amount of bandaging he has. He suffered this wound when a tear gas shell was thrown at him and it exploded on his neck. His testimony is recorded by the report released by Kolse’s fact-finding team as well, and in it he says, “There was no medical help and I feared police action and hence stayed at the village for a day with ordinary painkillers.”
There are others who want to get medical treatment but are afraid to leave the village, as they will have to come in contact with the police forces stationed at a little distance from the village. A young couple whose baby was sick with diarrhea wanted to visit a child-specialist in Nagercoil. “We cannot hire any vehicle to enter the village and take us there. All vehicles are being stopped by the police.” “Vehicles that are inside here are too afraid to leave, and those from outside are too afraid to enter,” says the grandmother of the baby. Milred, another protester and resident of the village, said that her daughter had jaundice but she was depending on home-remedies like coconut water, and tonics made from medicinal plants. A researcher who visited the village brought Milred the coconuts she needed for her daughter. As for the bikes owned by the villagers themselves, they allege that more than thirty of them have been damaged by the police.
A small health center run by the Sisters of the Little Flower of Bethany, is all that the villagers are relying on. But they don’t have an ambulance of their own, and themselves depend on an ambulance from one of their related hospitals, to deliver supplies. “If we know there may be a problem, we try to get ready with enough medicine. We know we may not be able to go out and get it,” says Sister Beena who serves at the hospital.
From diarrhea to Selsum’s major wounds, several of those spoken to have said that they want to go to Nagercoil for medical treatment. But Nagercoil is 36 kms away from Kudankulam. Could the villagers be exaggerating their health issues? Doctor Velraj who works at the health center feels that it is possible and says, “It is not always necessary for them to go all the way to Nagercoil for treatment.” Sister Beena feels that some of these health issues may be due to stress, “People are not sleeping well or eating, neither are they taking care of their hygiene. This is because they are not going back to their own homes and staying in the heat, on the beach. This mental tension is not healthy for them.”
And while the expired explosives used may have nothing to do with the open sores on the villagers, even getting the medical checkup that the SP spoke of, to confirm this, will involve the villagers leaving their village to go to a government hospital- which they are too afraid to do. It is this space of unclarity that is itself a cause of concern, as the locals are trapped in it. The fear and insecurity they feel is harder to diagnose, than physical wounds.
Anoo Bhuyan is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore